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The Archaeology Of Right Now

The pandemic nest of a pair of Steller’s jays, complete with a disinfecting wipe.
Chelsea Rose
The pandemic nest of a pair of Steller’s jays, complete with a disinfecting wipe.

I am writing this in mid-April, roughly a month into extreme social distancing measures.

As I write, I am watching a pair of Steller’s jays outside my makeshift office (formerly known as the dining room table). They are attempting to make a nest on a mounted antler rack, complete with foraged sticks, grass and straw, and what I just discovered to be disinfecting wipes that they are apparently stealing from the garbage. As no one could have imagined the world we are currently living in a month ago, I won’t even hazard a guess as to what it will be like by the time you read this. Regardless, the material culture of the pandemic is already visible. Sandwiched between the daily moments of horror, anxiety, and worry, the anthropologist within me is captivated by the fact that we are living through an unprecedented historical event. Just like those birds outside my window, we are all creating a material record of the ways in which we are simultaneously impacting and being impacted by the Global Pandemic. This recursive relationship will be fodder for historians, sociologists, and anthropologists for decades to come. What will this look like? That depends on us. The choices we make, opportunities we have, and circumstances we each face over the next few months will shape the history of right now.

Will anyone really care that there were newsworthy shortages of toilet paper and flour? Will future scholars even be able to comprehend the critical role that Netflix’s Tiger King played in week one of our collective quarantine? While some aspects of the moment might be looked back on with humor, there are others that will be more puzzling. Why were we not more prepared? Why in America, one of the richest nations on earth, were health care professionals fighting on the front lines with critical armor improvised from old elastic headbands, coffee filters, and garbage bags? Why indeed.

Since most of us are spending the bulk of our time in one place, you can look around and see what ‘artifacts’ of COVID-19 are in the pandemic nest you are building. Have you been caching toilet paper and bread flour? Have you been rummaging through closets and craft supplies for materials to make masks for the community? Are you living apart from your family in a makeshift camp to protect them from exposure while you help others? Have you set up an improvised workstation at home? Are you one of the millions scrambling to homeschool kids, get unemployment, or keep a shuttered business afloat during indefinite closures? While we are all living through the same moment, we are each doing it differently. Much is beyond our control right now, yet we are all faced with daily decisions, however small. If you are privileged, your biggest concern might be boredom. If you are not, contracting COVID-19 might be low on the list of things that are currently life threatening.

So what is your pandemic story? We all have many choices ahead of us before this is over, and you can never tell what actions will save lives, inspire others, or what will become cherished family stories or cautionary tales. Take pictures. Document not just your fancy quarantine meals or first homemade facemask, but even what seems mundane at the moment, because none of this is normal. But I’m not the only one curious about how you are making history. The Oregon Historical Society was quick to recognize the importance of this unique circumstance and has put out a call for COVID-19 stories, as “we are experiencing something right now that practically no one on earth has experienced before.” The Southern Oregon Historical Society is developing a similar program, and I am sure others will follow. I encourage you to record and share your pandemic adventures for posterity. Ironically, the Coronavirus has also hit amidst the largest national effort at documenting the American population: the Census. Please do your part and ensure your household is counted. These numbers matter now and the data will also be important for future scholars studying the history of the 21st century.

I have no idea how this will end. Clearly, no one does. But I do know that someday down the road environmental scientists will note an interesting dip in pollution levels in the spring of 2020 and a rewilding of parks and urban interfaces. Historians will come across documents describing distilleries across the nation halting the production of booze to make hand sanitizer. And my future colleagues will encounter the thousands of disposable rubber gloves that are being discarded carelessly and making their way into the archaeological record of COVID-19. If you are feeling helpless right now, just remember that your actions are shaping history. If you can, make them count.

Chelsea Rose is an archaeologist with the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology (SOULA) and co-host of Underground History, a monthly segment that airs during the Jefferson Exchange on JPR’s News & Information service.